Monday, 10 March 2008

Don't talk about the global warming money trail

As the old saying goes, "Follow the money."

That this is an article of faith to the left is not in dispute. Money comes from the evil of capitalism.

However, they don't like having the money trail spotlight pointed anywhere in their direction lest it reveal the ugly truth.

John Tierney is the New York Times' resident scientific antagonist. He is exactly the sort of intellectual flypaper that attracts so many of the left to read the NYT, write letters to the editor and provide comments to each article.

In this post, Global Warming Payola?, Tierney asks why it's not OK to talk about all of the funding supporting the global warming hypothesis while it is somehow completely discrediting if an oil company provides even fifty cents to demonstrate that polar bears are not at risk, the Arctic is fine, as is Antarctica, and that climate models bear absolutely no resemblance to reality.

The other thing I find hugely amusing about the Climate Faithful is their apparent shock that climate scientists could possibly on a funding gravy train and not undertaking sober, dedicated science in light of the history of exactly that happening over and over again.
All right, let’s talk about the money.

After I asked readers to focus on the substance of the skeptics’ arguments at this week’s conference on global warming, readers insisted that I should have focused on the financing of the sponsor, the Heartland Institute. Others objected to my (and my colleague Andy Revkin) even writing about a conference sponsored by this group. I’m used to this sort of criticism, but I still find it baffling. Do the critics really think there’s more money and glory to be won by doubting global warming than by going along with the majority?

I ask this question not because I doubt the integrity or competence of the researchers and environmental groups who are getting billions of dollars from government agencies, corporations, foundations and private donors concerned about climate change. If I write about prominent climate scientists like James Hansen of NASA, I don’t feel obliged to note how much research money they get — or how much extra money is going to their field because of the concerns they’ve raised about climate change. I don’t dismiss Al Gore’s warnings just because his campaign against global warming has been so good for his career. I don’t obsess about how much gets per lecture or what he does with the money. I’ve criticized some of his scarier predictions (like the shutdown of the Gulf Stream) on scientific grounds, but I’ve never suggested he’s venal.

Yet even before the program was announced for this week’s conference, even as Heartland was (without success) inviting Mr. Gore and scientists on his side to come debate, the event was dismissed as impossibly tainted by money. At RealClimate , the blog that touts its devotion to sober scientific analysis, the Heartland Institute was written off as “a front group for the fossil fuel industry,” the same them that was picked up by some commenters on this blog.

Here’s a response from Joseph Bast, Heartland’s president: “Donations from energy companies have never amounted to more than 5 percent of our budget in any year, and there is no corporate sponsor underwriting any of this conference. These criticisms are just a standard left-swing smear.”

These criticisms remind me of what happened to scientists who dissented from the “consensus” on the dangers of dietary fat in the 1970s, which I wrote about in this column about Gary Taubes’ book, “Good Calories, Bad Calories.” The skeptics were eventually vindicated by studies casting doubt on the link between fat and heart disease and cancer, but not before some of them were marginalized by accusations that they’d been corrupted by research grants from food companies.

What made these smears especially unfair, Mr. Taubes writes, is that the money from food companies was trivial compared with the money being doled out by government agencies. One of the researchers who’d supposedly been bought off noted that he’d received $250,000 from the food industry in his career versus $10 million from government agencies — and wondered why this didn’t make him a “tool of government.”

Now, you may trust the government agencies more than you do private companies because the agencies are supposed to be serving the public, not increasing profits for shareholders. But the officials running the agencies have their own agendas — like increasing their budgets and power and prestige, which can be done by supporting research demonstrating that there’s a terrible problem for the agency to solve. These officials are also subject to pressure from politicians and from the research establishment, which by definition tends to be more interested in work that conforms with the prevailing wisdom.

Once the fat-is-bad theory became the consensus — and was being formally promoted in federal agencies’ recommendations to the public — the officials handing out money were much more interested in finding evidence about the evils of fat than in looking at alternative hypotheses (like the carbs-are-bad theory discussed by Mr. Taubes). And research that jibed with the majority opinion was more likely to appeal to the editors and reviewers at journals as well as to journalists covering the debate. Scientists and journalists try to be open-minded, but they’re not immune to the confirmation bias that has been documented in so many experiments.

Moreover, it’s naive to think that money from industry is a monolith supporting one side of a debate. There were plenty of food companies eager to support the fat-is-bad consensus and profit by selling new low-fat products, just as there are companies — whole industries, in fact — eagerly promoting research and policies that jibe with the prevailing view on the dangers of global warming. Granted, there are companies lobbying against emission cuts because it could cost them money, but there’s plenty of potential for profit in the campaign against global warming, and energy companies are already angling for their cut.

A cap-and-trade systems for curbing carbon emissions (the kind criticized at this week’s conference) is popular in Washington in no small part because of corporate lobbyists who see a chance to make money from the carbon credits. There’s money to be made in developing alternative energy — even when it’s not so green, like the ethanol industry that has been collecting subsidies for decades. There’s money to be made by cultivating a green image. And there’s lots of money to be doled out to researchers studying climate change and new energy technologies.

When I wrote in the Times Magazine about the critics of recycling, I was bombarded with accusations that the recycling skeptics were tools of industry. But in fact recycling was a boon for capitalists because it raised the cost of waste disposal — and that meant more money flowing into corporate coffers. The same companies that ran landfills were happy to accept higher fees to recycle the materials.

Off the record, some of the executives would confide that recycling didn’t make economic sense to them, but they weren’t about to speak out against their profits — or hurt their reputations by opposing anything as popular as recycling. They were happy to join government agencies in giving money to recycling programs and environmental groups. If you wanted to sell out, there was a lot more money in going along with the majority. The few skeptics in academia and think tanks didn’t even have enough support to work full-time on the issue.

If readers insist on debating the pecuniary motives of scientists and their patrons, I’d be curious to see figures comparing how much money corporations, foundations and government agencies today give to global-warming skeptics versus how much they give to the other side. Again, I’m not suggesting that the researchers taking this money are corrupt, or that scientists will suppress the truth if it turns out the current prevailing view of climate change is wrong. If contradictions emerge, scientists will debate and revise their theories eventually.

But it will take longer to figure out what’s happening if dissent is stifled and skeptics are demonized. The skeptics in the minority start off with a disadvantage in getting their message heard simply because of the media’s bias for bad news and horror stories. When there’s a well-financed majority dominating the public debate, I find it odd to hear its members objecting to anyone else receiving money or attention.

If you have any figures on which side gets more money, let me know. But more important, how long do we have to keep talking about money? Should I be doing more to focus the debate on substance by screening out the comments from readers who’d rather discuss finances than debate ideas?
Discuss the money, certainly, but let's make sure there's some balance involved.

(Nothing Follows)

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

The skeptics in the minority start off with a disadvantage in getting their message heard simply because of the media’s bias for bad news and horror stories - Did you ever hear of Oreskes? Or even Peiser? Even if you believe Peiser over Oreskes (which would be silly), you'll know that the proportion of paper in the ISI database which are 'skeptical' is just 3%. And what proportion of articles in the popular media reflect that 3%? I'm sure you know it's something like 50%. Based on that, who would you say is having the easier time getting their views heard?

And as for money - have you ever met an academic who drove a Ferrari? Do some research, for once - look up the typical salary offered for post-docs in climate research.

Jack Lacton said...

Fudgie,

Non Sequiturs really are your forte.

BTW - Oreskes' research was more than a joke, as has been shown by such reputable sources as the WSJ.

google said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Ha ha ha ha ha! WSJ a reliable source? You really are a treat.

And you seem to be having your usual comprehension problems. You can ignore Oreskes if you want, believe Peiser instead - the answer's still the same.

Jack Lacton said...

Fudgie,

Oreskes is in the same non-credibility category as the Hockey Stick.

It doesn't surprise me that you believe it.

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